For me, it is extraordinarily enchanting to see humans who—despite their limitations—do not lose their generosity, curiosity, and eagerness to learn.
JOSHI Daniel, a new friend and a professional photographer from India invited by The Ministry of Tourism of Republic of Indonesia to travel to some of Indonesia’s favorite tourist destinations, held back his laughter as he saw me struggling with peeling landingan or mountain petai (stink bean), a task requested by Marsiti. The bowl in front of me still looked empty while a pile of landingan seemed unchanged.
‘You’re so slow!’ He teased.
I was not bothered at all by his remark. The skin of petai was finally peeled, and out came the green beans. ‘You see! I did it!’ I said proudly.
‘Yeah. It took you centuries just to peel one bean.’
‘You try, then!’
‘My job is taking pictures. Yours, cooking!’ He said calmly. Marsiti’skitchen appeared crowded just by the presence of Joshi. He sat while hugging his legs so his big figure could fit in a narrow gap between the table and plywood wall.
Marsiti, the hostess, entered the kitchen. She laughed when seeing Joshi sitting hunched on a tiny wooden stool.
‘Just go inside,’ she said while waving her hand. I translated Marsiti’s words to Joshi. He shook his head. He’d rather stay in the kitchen with us and make sure I was doing my job right, he said. Had he not been an invited guest of the Ministry of Tourism, I would have thrown a handful of landingan to his face.
‘Wow, it’s plentiful,’ Marsiti commented when seeing the bowl in front of me. I knew the Tengger woman just wanted to please me. The bowl, as Joshi said, looked empty. She took a landingan, then taught me how to quickly peel it. Joshi chuckled, as if he understood what Marsiti said.
‘Wow! She’s fast!’
‘She said I’m good at peeling.’
‘Really? Doesn’t look like it to me.’
I translated our conversation to Marsiti. Marsiti stared at Joshi while laughing. Joshi is the first Indian she saw in her life. All this time, she thought Indians were only on TV. Just a myth. At first, Marsiti did not know that Joshi is from India. She kept talking in Indonesian and Joshi kept nodding and smiling behind his thick beard. Until the moment when Marsiti asked a question and Joshi did not know what to answer.
It was the time when I told Marsiti that Joshi is from India. The eyes of the woman who climbs the hill every day to pick landingan, were wide opened. ‘India tenanan—real Indian?’ she asked in Javanese. I nodded. ‘Oalaah. Ora iso ngomong Indonesia, tho?—Oh. Can’t speak Indonesian, can he?’ I shook my head.
‘He really wants to come to my house?’ Marsiti asked. When I met her at a field not far from where we stayed, I asked what was inside the basket she was carrying on her shoulder. Marsiti showed it; mountain petai or what the Tengger know as landingan. It looks like petai cina (white lead tree), only the size of a pea. Its skin is firmer and thicker. Marsiti explained to me that landingan is usually used for chili sauce and eaten with warm cooked rice. The Tengger usually eat it with aron—corn rice. She also told me how to cook it.
‘Want to take it home? You just cook it,’ Marsiti offered. I shook my head, telling her that I just stayed for a night. Before departing from Surabaya to Bali tomorrow morning, the team and I planned to see sunrise in Penanjakan and go to Mount Bromo’s crater.
‘What a pity. It is our food. It’s a loss if you don’t try it.’ I told her I would try it on my next visit to Bromo. ‘Want to come home with me and have dinner? I’ll cook,’ Marsiti offered.
‘But, it wouldn’t taste like the food from the hotel where you’re staying. You want?’
I stared open-mouthed then nodded in an instant. Her offer sounded like a free ride to a dream destination with me having to do nothing. I even forgot to ask Joshi—who was chasing me on the mountainside— if he agreed or not.
When I started following Marsiti to her house, I just realized it and told Joshi I wanted to visit Marsiti’s house and learned to cook the beans she had showed me earlier. Joshi, as usual, nodded. I actually did not know what was on his mind, so I took the nod as a yes without asking what he wanted.
Marsiti’s question made me realize another thing. This would take time. Not knowing what Marsiti and I were talking about, Joshi’s eyes got wider and he asked what was going on. Why we stopped walking. ‘Uhm, I don’t know how long I’m gonna stay at her house. I’ll most likely stay there until dinner’s over. You don’t have to go. You should have your dinner at the hotel,’ I explained to him.
‘What?’ His eyes got bigger. ‘Of course, I’m coming with you. I can eat at the hotel tomorrow, if that’s the reason.’
I told her what Joshi just said. Marsiti smiled then went on to tell about Mahabrata soap opera, and Indians she saw on TV. ‘It’s on tonight. I will show it to Joshi,’ Marsiti said. I did not translate this to Joshi. The thought of an Indian watching an Indian soap opera at the house of a Tengger tribe in Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park was appealing.
And here we were. Packed in Marsiti’s kitchen, which had soil floor and was 2,5 m x 1,5 m in size. The sky was already dark. Tengger cold air was stinging slowly. Marsiti lit the stove and boiled water. The heat warmed the kitchen.
‘Joshi like coffee?’ she asked him. Without taking my eyes off of landingan, I translated for him. Marsiti kept talking to him, while I was translating and peeling at the same time. ‘Joshi is nice, isn’t he?’ Marsiti said while laughing. ‘He cared to talk to me.’
This time I lifted my head up, observing Marsiti’s happy face because an Indian visited her kitchen; a nation she only saw on TV. She lived alone. Her only child was married, and lived with his wife and child not far from her house. Marsiti’s husband had long been gone with another woman.
‘I want to learn English, so I can talk with more strangers,’ she continued. ‘It looks fun to be able to do that, like you and Joshi.’
‘What did she say?’ Joshi was curious.
‘She wants to learn English so she can talk to you, and many more strangers.’
‘Tell her, just by being her, there is a lot of people willing to talk to her. She doesn’t need to speak English.’
I translated it to Marsiti. The woman who once learned Indonesian through radio broadcasts, gave a broad smile. Her eyes sparkled. ‘Mosok—Really?’
‘She doesn’t believe it,’ I told Joshi.
‘She should. She and I have been talking, haven’t we?’
‘Yes, and you don’t help me at all with these beans.’
‘That’s your job. You said you wanted to learn to cook.’
I pouted. Marsiti laughed. ‘Have you been friends with Joshi for a long time?’ I shook my head. ‘Five days. He’s my travel buddy.’
JOSHI’S words did not weaken Marsiti’s spirit to learn English. While grinding landingan, I taught her numbers. She learnt quickly. I was not surprised since she once learnt Indonesian from radio. Before that, she could only speak Tengger Javanese.
‘How do I say “Saya Marsiti—I am Marsiti” in English?’
‘It’s like saying “Ayam—Chicken–in Indonesian,’ I said, ‘A yam Marsiti.’
‘Oooooh!’ Marsiti chuckled then said, ‘A yam Marsiti.’
‘Now, you change “yam” to “yem”.’ I laughed seeing her grinning face. ‘A yem Marsiti.’
‘A yem Marsiti,’ she imitated.
I gave her thumbs up. ‘If Joshi shows up, you tell him like that.’ Joshi was going back to the hotel to pick something up. I just said yes since he did not help me at all with the peeling.
Marsiti laughed. ‘Isin—It’s embarassing,’ she said. ‘You just said “later” to Joshi. What does it mean?’
I looked at the landingan I had ground. Marsiti had put into it shrimp paste, sugar, salt, and chilli. ‘Pour the water now, Bu—Ma’am?’
‘Later,’ Marsiti answered.
I was dumbfounded then gave thumbs up to the woman who collects 3 to 5 kilograms of landingan to sell in the market every day. A big grin was drawn on her tanned face.
JOSHI was back. He peered inside by bowing at the kitchen door.
‘You said I had to help her carry rice from the stall?’
I asked Marsiti if she was still going to the stall to pick up her rice. Joshi would help her carry it.
‘No need. I had my neighbor help carry it here,’ she said.
‘Come here and sit. Dinner is almost served,’ she called Joshi. Marsiti took out the dishes: fried chicken, empal (sweet fried beef), and corn fritter. She said they were leftovers from Karo Holiday. There would be a celebration and a variety of food on this special traditional day for Tengger tribe. ‘If it is Karo Day, you would not be served this kind of leftover,’ Martini chuckled.
‘If I visit Bromo again, can I stay here?’
‘Sure! I will take you around to see other Tengger people’s houses.’ Marsiti said Karo ceremony is held for one week. Just like Eid Al-Fitr, every one would visit their neighbors or relatives.
We sat around the kitchen table. Sambal landingan was the main course. Beside aron (corn rice) as the traditional food of Tengger people, Marsiti
also served white rice. She was worried her new Indian friend would not get full just by eating block shaped corn rice.
‘I’ll get the spoon for a moment. Gosh, what was the English word?’ She patted her forehead. I answered, we were learning about spoon-fork-plate-glass.
‘Alaaah! Lali akuuu. Iyo. Spoon—Alaaah! I forgot. Yes. Spoon.’ She could not find a spoon in the kitchen. Marsiti looked worried. ‘Tell her, I really want to eat with my hands.’ Joshi seemed to understand what was going on.
I sat Marsiti down. ‘We will eat like the way you eat.’
‘With hands?’ she asked Joshi. He bobbled his head while handing out his plate. ‘Lah? Piye, tho?—Lah? How?’ But she still put warm cooked rice, aron, and sambal landingan to Joshi’s plate.
The three of us ate heartily with our hands. Marsiti stared at Joshi and shook her head occasionally. Coming from the living room was the faint TV sound airing Mahabrata. Marsiti poked my hand, her smile widening. Apparently, she was eager to show it to her new friend.
BROMO has never felt this special to me before. But, it was Marsiti that made difference to one of Indonesia’s top destinations in East Java. With all of her limitations—language and facilities—her friendliness never fades, even for foreigners.
‘You know what makes Indonesia wonderful?’ Joshi asked two days earlier as we walked along the sidewalk of Malioboro, Jogjakarta, on one morning after a photo hunt at Beringharjo market. ‘The people,’ he continued.
While I was writing this article, Marsiti’s face flashed by, bringing back happy memories of one afternoon in Sukapura village, Probolinggo. Unexpected kindness from strangers I met is what makes me miss a journey, what makes a place charming and fascinating.
And, through people like Marsiti, the real wonderful
Indonesia shines. 
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